Nine months after the United States led an invasion of Iraq,
Saddam Hussein was found hiding in a spider hole in the town of
Tikrit on Dec. 13, 2003, ending nearly 25 years of rule marked
by brutality and force, but also by social reforms that made the
country achieve the highest literacy rate in the Middle East.
in 1937 to Sunni-Muslim farmers in a village north of Baghdad, Saddam joined the
socialist Baath Party in 1958 which gave him entry into politics and later allowed
him to control Iraq.
The party was formed upon the goal of achieving a
"unified democratic socialist Arab nation" and had a network in several
Arab countries including Syria, Lebanon and Egypt.
In 1959, after British
forces left Iraq, a group of young Baathists, opposed to Prime Minister Karim
Qasim's lack of support for pan-Arab causes, plotted to assassinate the Iraqi
leader. Saddam, who was trained as a hit man, was ordered to carry out the attack.
After an unsuccessful attempt, the young Baathist was forced to flee Iraq to Syria
and Cairo where he began studying law.
During his time in exile, Saddam built a strong network both
inside and outside Iraq before returning in 1963, according to
William Quandt, a professor of Middle East politics at the University
of Virginia, who has served as an adviser to the American government
on Mideast policy.
In 1968 -- after a tumultuous period during which Saddam was
jailed and then escaped prison -- the Baath Party regained power
and Saddam served as acting deputy chairman of the party's ruling
Revolutionary Command Council.
As a leader he was known to be ruthless and thuggish. According
to published accounts, Saddam eliminated anyone who opposed him
and carried out mass executions of people who could pose a threat
to his regime.
To send a message to other potential opponents, Saddam had videos
made of those executions and sent to leaders of Arab nations,
according to Bilal Wahab, an Iraqi Fulbright scholar from the
Kurdish region of Arbil in Iraq.
Kurds, who waged a low-level war for independence throughout Iraq's modern history,
were heavily persecuted under Saddam. In an uprising against the Kurds in northern
Iraq in 1987, entire towns and villages in the Kurdish region were demolished
by Saddam's secret police and people were buried in mass graves, according to
"There was large scale ethnic cleaning that killed at-least
180,000 Kurds between 1983 and 1988. Saddam wanted to systematically change the
demography of the oil rich town of Kirkuk in Kurdistan," Wahab said.
Under Saddam, many Iraqis lived in fear, not just of their leader
but of outside forces, especially Iran, from whom only Saddam
could protect them -- a common strategy he used to maintain power.
According to Wahab, who went to elementary school in Baghdad,
a picture of Saddam appeared in every school, textbook and commercial
"Before the beginning of every class at school, when we
used to stand up to greet the teacher, we would chant 'long live
President Saddam -- down with the infidel Persians'," said
"Our art class assignments in elementary school were to
draw pictures of a battlefield in a war against Iran," he
In 1980, Saddam led Iraq into an eight-year war with Iran spurred
by Iran's new Shiite revolutionary regime.
in August 1990, Saddam invaded Kuwait as a result of a long-standing territorial
dispute, proclaiming the country Iraq's 19th province. He defied U.N. orders to
retreat and his actions finally led to the Persian Gulf War with U.S. troops launching
a series of strikes on Baghdad.
The war lasted six weeks, but coupled with the Iran war, had
disastrous effects on Iraq.
According to Shahla Waliy, who grew up in Baghdad and came to
the United States in October 2006, millions of Iraqis were displaced
because of the wars. "They went mainly to Europe and specifically
to countries like Norway, Sweden and Germany where immigration
law was flexible."
a 2002 U.N. report estimated that 4 million Iraqis were living
abroad, it was reportedly still difficult to leave Iraq.
"You could apply
for asylum but then your relatives in Iraq would be tortured. And once you left,
there was no way you could return and be safe under the dictatorial regime,"
In the aftermath of the Gulf War, the United States as well as
other countries imposed sanctions on Iraq, which took a toll on
the country's economy.
"People were literally starving," said Wahab. "Middle
class people didn't have enough to eat one meal a day. Salaries
were minimal. A faculty member of a university, whereas had previously
been able to afford a house and a car, after the 1991 sanctions
earned approximately US$1 in a month."
Despite Saddam's reported brutality, the dictator had a vision
of a modern, largely secular Iraq.
"He wanted to take Iraq into the 20th century. But if that
meant eliminating 50 percent of the population of Iraq, he was
willing to do it," according to Said Aburish, author of a
biography of Saddam called "Secrets of His Life and Leadership".
In the first half of Saddam's regime, people who didn't pose
a threat to the dictator prospered from the country's immense
"If one was Sunni, and part of the establishment
and did not oppose him, things were great," according to Quandt.
didn't go hungry in those days in Iraq," Quandt said. "Saddam improved
the school system in Iraq and literacy for women was phenomenal for that of an
Arab country at the time."
In a 2001 interview, Aburish discussed the
support for the dictator with PBS's Frontline.
"We knew Saddam was tough. But the balance was completely
different then. He was also delivering. The Iraqi people were
getting a great deal of things that they needed and wanted and
he was popular."